Dr. Julie Graff is a medical oncologist at Oregon Health & Sciences University.
Prostatepedia spoke with her recently about her continuing work on combining Keytruda (pembrolizumab) with Xtandi (enzalutamide).
What are Keytruda (pembrolizumab) and Xtandi (enzalutamide)? How and when are they used in prostate cancer patients?
Dr. Graff: Keytruda (pembrolizumab) is an intravenous antibody to PD-1 or programmed death 1 on immune cells, in particular T cells. When that protein is present, it can interact with tumor cells that have PD-L1 and through that interaction the tumor cells turn off the immune system. We consider it a checkpoint inhibitor.
We’ve known for a long time that in some cancers T cells, which are the part of the immune system that can kill cancer cells, are present in the tumor and yet they’re not actually killing the tumor. Over the decades we’ve learned that some of those cells, not necessarily T cells but immune cells in the environment, are actually helping the tumor grow. We’ve also learned that some of them are trying to fight the tumor, but they’re being turned off by the tumor.
Keytruda (pembrolizumab) can block that negative signaling, thereby activating the immune system. It was first approved in melanoma and has received multiple subsequent approvals. So far we don’t have great markers for knowing who will benefit from the drug and who won’t, but we are working on that.
Xtandi (enzalutamide) is a drug that binds to the androgen receptor, which is inside the prostate cancer cells, and prevents it from interacting with androgens or male hormones. In that fashion, it leads to some cell death and helps people live longer. It’s been FDA approved since 2012 in the post-chemo setting, and now it has been approved in the pre-chemotherapy setting. It used to be approved only in metastatic disease, and now it’s approved in non-metastatic castrate-resistant disease. It’s being applied in different stages of the disease.
What is the rationale behind combining these two agents?
Dr. Graff: In studies where checkpoint inhibitors like Keytruda (pembrolizumab) are used alone, there’s not a lot of tumor activity. There’s certainly not a good rationale to use Keytruda (pembrolizumab) by itself in prostate cancer. Maybe as time goes on we’ll find that perhaps 2 out of 100 patients have certain mutations that make the Keytruda (pembrolizumab) alone helpful, but we’re not yet there.
There wasn’t a great reason to use Keytruda (pembrolizumab) by itself, so we began to think about combinations. Xtandi (enzalutamide) was felt to upregulate PD-L1 on dendritic cells, in particular when people became resistant to the Xtandi (enzalutamide), so that was one initial reason.
Castration therapy may reinvigorate the immune system. When you’re maturing as a child, you have a thymus gland behind your sternum that helps create new T cells. As you go through puberty, that gland shrinks and becomes inactive, so you don’t make new T cells.
It looks like maybe the thymus increases again during castration therapy; there’s a hypothesis that you’re creating new T cells.
There is also a reason to think about Xtandi (enzalutamide) in particular. It’s helping in those two regards.
Also, if you used Keytruda (pembrolizumab) in combination with chemotherapy, you would be at risk of killing a lot of immune cells with the chemo itself. If you used Keytruda (pembrolizumab) in combination with Zytiga (abiraterone), which is like Xtandi (enzalutamide), you would have to use prednisone, which would perhaps dampen the immune response. When our study was designed in 2014, it made a lot of sense to combine Keytruda (pembrolizumab) with the Xtandi (enzalutamide).
What have studies revealed about the combination? Is it effective? What kind of side effects do patients experience?
Dr. Graff: We did a Phase II study looking at 28 patients with metastatic castrate-resistant prostate cancer whose cancers were progressing on Xtandi (enzalutamide). We added 4 doses of Keytruda (pembrolizumab). We saw 5 responded in that group of 28. That’s only 18%, but when they responded, they responded spectacularly.
The most extreme case was a gentleman who started out with a PSA of 2,500 that went down to 0. He had big, bulky liver tumors that just shrank away. He must be two and a half, almost three years out from treatment and he’s still in complete response. His case is extreme. But when we do see responses, they’re spectacular.
If those five patients had only had a dip in their PSA or something less impressive, the study wouldn’t be as important as it was. Then we had four other people who had very durable responses as well. That’s the benefit part of the study.
But there are known side effects with each of these drugs. With Keytruda (pembrolizumab), when you stimulate the immune system you run the risk of the immune cells killing or attacking healthy tissue. For example, a patient on Keytruda (pembrolizumab) could develop autoimmune hepatitis where the immune cells are attacking a healthy liver. There are some bad sides to stimulating the immune system.
In our study, we did see some of those side effects. In these 28 patients who were treated, we did have patients who had autoimmune toxicities in which their own immune cells attacked healthy tissue. We had four patients who had thyroid dysfunction, which is a fairly well recognized side effect of Keytruda (pembrolizumab) that is easy to manage with thyroid medicine. We had a couple people with colitis, which happens when the immune system attacks the colon; that has to be managed with high-dose steroids and sometimes biologic drugs that GI specialists use. We saw side effects that we would expect from Keytruda (pembrolizumab) and we saw some side effects that we would expect from Xtandi (enzalutamide) such as fatigue. Since these patients had already been on Xtandi (enzalutamide) for a long time, we did not observe worsening of the Xtandi (enzalutamide) side effects with the addition of Keytruda (pembrolizumab). We mostly just saw those Keytruda (pembrolizumab) side effects.
Any follow-up studies planned?
Dr. Graff: We got funding from Merck to add another 30 patients on to that study. Those 30 have already been enrolled and treated. For those patients, we insisted on a biopsy. For the first 28 patients, we asked them to get a biopsy if they had a tumor that could easily and safely be biopsied. In the next 30 patients, we required that they have a biopsy. We have now a nice array of tissue from these 58 patients and we’re working on getting the results. We have some multiplex stains and hope that the paper can come out next year.